The Teacher who opened my Mind

Take a new teacher who actually finds ideas invigorating, put him in a school where disengaged kids have resigned themselves to just getting by, and watch what happens. Here, college professor Mark Edmundson, once a high school under-achiever, pays homage to the philosophy teacher who awakened his mind.

–The Editors

Frank Lears came to Medford High School with big plans for his philosophy course. Together with a group of self-selected seniors, he was going to ponder the eternal questions: beauty, truth, free will, fate, that sort of thing. The class would start out reading The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant, then go on to Plato’s dialogues, some Aristotle, Leibniz (a particular favorite of Lears’), maybe just a little bit of Kant, then into a discussion of Bertrand Russell’s effort to clear the whole thing up with an injection of clean scientific logic. Lears had just graduated from Harvard. All of his intellectual aspirations were intact.

On the first day of class, we saw a short, slight man, with olive skin–we thought he might be Mexican–wearing a skinny tie and a moth-eaten suit with a paper clip fastened to the left lapel. He had hunched shoulders and a droopy black mustache. Even when he strove for some dynamism, as he did that first day, explaining his plans for the course, he still had a melancholy presence. Having outlined the course, he turned away from us and began writing on the blackboard, in a script neater than any we would see from him again. It was a quotation from Nietzsche. He told us to get out our papers and pens and spend a couple of pages interpreting the quote “as a limbering-up exercise.” I had never heard of Nietzsche. I had never read all the way through a book that was written for adults and that was not concerned exclusively with football.

The day before, I’d sat in the office of Mrs. Olmstead, the senior guidance counselor, and been informed that I ranked 270th in a class of nearly 700. My prospects were not bright. We talked about Massachusetts Bay Community College, Salem State Teachers College; we discussed my working for the city of Medford–perhaps I’d start by collecting barrels, then graduate in time to a desk job (my father had some modest connections); I mentioned joining the Marines (I might have made it in time for the Cambodia invasion). Nothing was resolved.

As I was mumbling my way out the door, Mrs. Olmstead began talking about a new teacher who was coming to the school, “someone we’re especially proud to have.” He was scheduled to teach philosophy. I didn’t know what philosophy was, but I associated it with airy speculation, empty nothing; it seemed an agreeable enough way of wasting time.

So there I was in a well-lit room, wearing, no doubt, some sharp back-to-school ensemble, pegged pants and sporty dice-in-the-back-alley shoes, mildly aching from two or three football-inflicted wounds, and pondering the Nietzsche quotation, which I could barely understand. I felt dumb as a rock, a sentiment with which I, at 17, had no little prior experience. But by putting the quotation on the board, Lears showed me that, in at least one department, his powers of comprehension were a few notches lower than mine. He had misunderstood Medford High School entirely.

The appearances had taken him in. No doubt he’d strolled through the building on the day before students arrived; he’d seen desks, chalkboards, supply closets stocked full of paper and books, all the paraphernalia of education. He had seen these things and he’d believed that he was in a school, a place where people quested, by fits and starts, for the truth.

But I had acquired a few facts that Lears would not have been primed to receive at Harvard, or at prep school, or at any of the other places where he had filled his hours. Medford High School, whatever its appearances, was not a school. It was a place where you learned to do–or were punished for failing in–a variety of exercises. The content of these exercises mattered not at all. What mattered was form, repetition, and form. You filled in the blanks, conjugated, declined, diagrammed, defined, outlined, summarized, recapitulated, positioned, graphed. It did not matter what: English, geometry, biology, history, all were the same. The process treated your mind as though it were a body part capable of learning a number of protocols, then repeating, repeating. If you’d done what you should have at Medford High, the transition into a factory, into an office, into the Marines would be something you’d barely notice; it would be painless.

Before Lears arrived, I never rebelled against the place, at least not openly. I didn’t in part because I believed that Medford High was the only game there was. The factories where my father and uncles worked were extensions of the high school; the TV shows we watched were manufactured to fit the tastes for escape that such places form; the books we were assigned to read in class, Ivanhoe, Silas Marner, The Good Earth, of which I ingested about 50 pages each, could, as I saw it then, have been written by the English teachers, with their bland, babbling goodness and suppressed hysterias (I’ve never had the wherewithal to check back into them). Small bursts of light came through in the Beethoven symphonies my father occasionally played at volume on our ancient stereo (the music sounded like it was coming in over a walkie-talkie) and the Motown tunes I heard on Boston’s black radio station, WILD, but these sounds were not connected to any place or human possibility I knew about. So I checked out. I went low to the ground, despondent, suspicious, asleep in the outer self, barely conscious within.

This condition Frank Lears changed. That now, however imperfectly, I can say what’s on my mind, and that I know what kind of life I hope for, I owe not to him alone, of course, but to many. Frank Lears pushed open the door to those others, though, other worlds, other minds.

For three months, Lears did his best with Will Durant and The Story of Philosophy. We barely gave him an inch. Dubby O’Day (Donald O’Day on his report cards and disciplinary citations) made enormous daisy chains out of the rubbber bands he used to bind the advertising circulars he delivered on Saturday mornings or sat, his body tight with concentrated energy, inking in all of the o‘s in the textbook. Tom Vincents pried tufts of grass off the soles of his soccer cleats; Michael de Leo and Tom Cappalano, wide receiver and quarterback for the Medford Mustangs (I blocked for them, sporadically), contemplated pass plays and the oncoming game with Newton, or Somerville, or Everett. Nora Balakanian was high school beautiful. Sandra Steinman, the school’s only hippie–she wore wire-rim glasses and work boots and was, by her own choice, of no social consequence at all–conversed with Lears on subjects no one else cared about.

Lears thought well of himself. And we all wondered, if unspokenly, where this guy might have gotten his considerable lode of self-esteem. Teachers, as we could have told him, were losers out-and-out. And this one in partiticular wasn’t strong or tough or worldly. He wore ridiculous clothes, old formal suits, and that weird paper clip in his lapel; he talked like a dictionary; his accent was over-cultivated, queer, absurd. Yet he thought highly of himself. And not much at all, it

wasn’t difficult to see, of us. He mocked us, and not always so genially, for never doing the reading, never knowing the answer, never having a thought in our heads. We were minor fools, his tone implied, for ignoring this chance to learn a little something before being fed live to what was waiting. For our part, we sat back, and waited to see what would turn up.

One day in mid-December or so, Lears walked in and told us to pass back our copies of The Story of Philosophy. Then he told us that he had some other books for us to read but that we’d have to pay for them ourselves. Lears, it turned out, had asked no one’s permission to do this; it just struck him as a good idea to try to get people who never picked up a book to do some reading by giving them work that might speak to their experience. At Medford High, this qualified as major educational innovation, real breakthrough thinking. And, of course, there were plenty of rules against using books that hadn’t been approved by the school board. The books that Lears picked were on a theme, though I had no idea of that at the time. The Stranger, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Freud’s Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Siddhartha: The first three were about the oppressions of conformity (among other things), the last about the Buddha’s serene, fierce rebellion against it. For the first few weeks, since virtually no one but Sandra would read a book at home, we simply sat in a circle and read the pages aloud in turn. Periodically, Lears would ask a question, and usually, in the beginning, it was he who would answer it or decide finally to let it drop. One day, when we were reading The Stranger, Lears asked us about solitude. What does it mean to be alone? Is it possible? What would it mean to be genuinely by oneself? Sandra Steinman raised her hand, no doubt ready to treat us to a description of Zen meditation and its capacity to melt the ego beyond solitude into pure nothingness. But Lears must have seen something ripple across Nora Balakanian’s beautiful face. He gestured in her direction, though she hadn’t volunteered.

Nora was a high school princess, whose autobiography, I’d have guessed back then, would have translated into a graph peaking from prom to prom, with soft valleys of preparation in between. But what Nora did, in her teasing nasal voice, was to run through a litany of defenses against being alone. She mentioned listening to the radio and talking on the phone, then playing the songs and conversations over in her mind, and a myriad of other strategies, ending, perceptively enough, with our habit of blocking out the present by waiting for things to happen in the future. But Nora did not express herself with detachment. She said “I.” “This is how I keep from being alone.” “And why,” asked Lears, “is it hard to be alone?” “Because,” Nora answered, “I might start to think about things.”

Nora had been, up until that point, one of the Elect, predestined for all happiness; suddenly she had gone over to the terminally Lost. One of the great sources of grief for those who suffer inwardly is their belief that others exist who are perpetually and truly happy. From the ranks of the local happy few, Nora had just checked out, leaving some effective hints about those she’d left behind.

The book that mattered to me wasn’t The Stranger, which had gotten Nora going, or Freud’s book on the herd instinct (when I was writing my dissertation, a literary critical reading of Freud, my working text of Group Psychology was, somehow, the one that had belonged to Dubby O’Day, with the o’s colored in to about page 20), but Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s a hard book for me to read now, with its pumped-up, cartoon hero, Randall Patrick McMurphy. But at the time it was all in all. I read it in a lather, running through it in about 10 hours straight, then starting in again almost immediately.

But that didn’t happen right off. It was probably on the fifth day of reading the book out loud in class that a chance remark Lears made caught my attention, or what there was of it then to catch. He said that prisons, hospitals, and schools were on a continuum, controlling institutions with many of the same protocols and objectives, and that Kesey, with his bitter portrait of the mental hospital, might be seen as commenting on all these places.

This idea, elementary as it was, smacked me with the force of revelation. Here was a writer who was not on the side of the teachers, who in fact detested them and their whole virtuous apparatus. That the book was in part crude and ugly I knew even at that time: Blacks in it are twisted sadists, the women castrators or sweet whores. But it was the anti-authoritarian part that swept me in; here was someone who found words–gorgeous, graffiti-sized, and apocalyptic–for what in me had been mere inchoate impulses.

Soon Lears started bringing things into class. Every Friday we got some music: I remember hearing Billie Holiday, Mozart, the Velvet Underground. He also showed us art books, read a poem from time to time, and brought in friends of his to explain themselves. A panel from Students for a Democratic Society appeared one day to discuss the Vietnam War with us. (Most of us were in favor.)

One February day, a group of black students burst into the room and announced that this was the anniversary of Malcolm X’s death. Lears looked up mildly from his place in the circle and asked the foremost of them, “And when was he born, Malcolm Little?” The young man gave a date. Lears nodded and invited them to sit down. It was the first time I’d had an extended conversation about politics with blacks. More discussions followed and, though they didn’t stop the ongoing racial guerrilla war at Medford High, they were something.

When the weather warmed up, the class occasionally went outside to sit on the grass and hold discussions there. This sometimes resulted in one or two of us nodding off, but Lears didn’t much care; he had most of us most of the time now. He sat cross-legged, and laughed, and we answered the questions he asked, because what he thought mattered. It was a first, this outdoors business; no one at Medford High would have imagined doing it. One Thursday afternoon, just as we were wrapping up a discussion of Thoreau, Lears gave us a solemn, mischievous look, the sort of expression shrewd old rabbis are supposed to be expert in delivering, and said, “There’s been some doubt expressed about our going outside.” Then he told a story. Jingles McDermott, the feared school disciplinarian, had approached Lears in the faculty cafeteria as other teachers milled around. What would happen, McDermott asked Lears, if everyone held class outside?

Now this was familiar stuff to us all. McDermott’s question came out of that grand conceptual bag that also contained lines like “Did you bring gum for everyone?” and “Would you like to share that note with the whole class?” McDermott was trying to treat Lears like a student, like one of us–and in front of his colleagues.

McDermott did not know that Lears, however diminutive, thought himself something of a big deal and so would not have been prepared when Lears drew an easy breath and did what every high school kid would like to do when confronted with this sort of bullying. He didn’t fight it, didn’t stand on his dignity. He simply ran with it.

What if everyone held class outside on sunny days? Suppose that happened? And from there, Lears went on to draw a picture of life at Medford High School that had people outside on the vast lawn talking away about books and ideas and one thing and another, hanging out, being lazy, being absorbed, thinking hard from time to time, and reveling in the spring. It was Woodstock and Socrates’ agora fused, and Lears spun it out for us, just as he had for McDermott. What if that happened, he asked us? How tragic would it be?

We went outside whenever we chose to after that. It was very odd: I had been at Medford High for three years and I had never seen McDermott lose a round. After class was over that day, Tom Cappalano, the quarterback, said, “You know, Lears can really be an asshole when he wants to be.” In Medford, there were 50 intonations you could apply to the word “asshole.” Spun right, the word constituted high praise.

That year of teaching was the last for Frank Lears. He got married, went to law school, and, I heard, eventually moved to Maine, where he could pursue a life a little akin to the one Thoreau, his longtime idol, managed to lead during his stay at Walden. I haven’t seen Lears in about 25 years. But I do carry around with me the strong sense that the party, the outdoor extravaganza, he invited us to, me and Nora and Dubby and even Jingles McDermott, is still a live possibility. I had great teachers after Frank Lears, some of the world’s most famous in fact, but I never met his equal. What I liked most about him, I suppose, was that for all the minor miracle of what he accomplished with us, he was no missionary: He served us but also himself. His goodness had some edge to it. He got what he wanted out of Medford High, which was a chance to affront his spiritual enemies, though with some generosity, and to make younger people care about the sorts of things he cared about, to pull them out of their parents’ orbit and into his. All good teaching entails some kidnapping.

As well as some sorrow: Good teachers have many motivations, but I suspect that loneliness is often one of them. You need a small group, a coterie, to talk to; unable to find it in the larger world, you try to create it in the smaller sphere of a classroom. Lears, who seemed at times a little lost in his life, a brilliant orphan, did something like that with us.

What Lears taught–or at least what I gleaned from him–is that anything that’s been successfully institutionalized, however rebellious it may seem or however virtuous, is stifling. What’s called subversion only lasts for an instant in a school or a hospital or a home; it’s quickly swept up to become part of the protocol, an element in “the way we do things around here.” At the time, Kesey and Camus collided well enough with the dead protocols of Medford High, but now, for all I know, they fit in fine–alienation has become standard issue.

One pays for the kind of mental exhilaration that Lears initiated in his students. One pays in self-doubt and isolation, in the suspicion that what seems to be true resistance is merely a perverse substitute for genuine talent, a cheap way of having something to say. Lears’s path, so appealing in its first steps, separated me from my family, cut me loose from religion and popular faith, sent me adrift beyond the world bordered by TV and piety and common sense. One step down that road followed another, and now, at 50, I probably could not turn around if I wished to.

 Still, the image I most often hit on when I think about Lears glows brightly. It’s late spring, a gloomy dead day. He’s standing beside the beat-up phonograph at the back of the room with a record he’s brought in by the Incredible String Band. I dislike the record and open my book, the Autobiography of Malcolm X, which has not been assigned in any class, and disappear into it. He cranks the music just a little louder. I keep reading. But then, curious, I raise my head. The racket of the String Band floods in. And there in the back of the room, Lears is dancing away. He’s a terrible dancer, stiff and arrhythmic. Not until I saw Bob Dylan in concert did I ever see anyone dance so self-consciously. It struck me that this was probably the first time anyone had ever danced in this classroom. But here was Lears, bringing it off. It was like some strokes of light rendered by a painter for the first time, though with an unsteady enough hand. Lears had scored a benevolent victory over Medford High School. (You could say that he’d beaten them at their game, but really he’d shown them a new one.) He had a right to a little celebration.

After high school, Mark Edmundson studied at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and at Bennington College, from which he graduated in 1974. He moved to New York, where he wrote for the Village Voice, drove a cab, and worked as a stagehand and security guy at rock shows. Edmundson taught at a “hippie school” in Woodstock for three years, before enrolling at Yale University, where he received his Ph.D. in English. He has taught English at the University of Virginia for nearly 20 years. This essay is adapted from his new book, Teacher: The One Who Made the Difference (Random House). A version of this essay originally appeared in Lingua Franca (March, 1999).

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